A city civil service board Thursday overturned Baton Rouge police officer Yuseff Hamadeh's dismissal after finding the police department violated his rights during their internal investigation of an August incident in which he shot at a fleeing motorist.

The Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board voted 3-2 on a motion that the Baton Rouge Police Department had violated the Police Officer's Bill of Rights in it handling of the investigation by not allowing Hamadeh to have counsel present for a polygraph examination.

State law mandates that any violation of that bill of rights that occurs during an investigation nullifies any disciplinary action that results from it.

"Whatever else the facts are of this case, to me, there are affidavits that denied this officer his right to counsel during an interrogation," said Julie Cherry, the civil service board's chairwoman.  

Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said after the hearing that the department will appeal the decision, which will indefinitely halt Hamadeh's return the police force while legal proceedings continue. 

"We respect the board," Paul said, still visibly disappointed. "We're going to sit down with our legal staff and make a determination (for what comes next). ... Everything is a lesson learned."

Hamadeh was fired after telling investigators that 21-year-old Raheem Howard first shot at him after an Aug. 7 traffic stop, prompting the officer to return fire.

Howard was then arrested on attempted murder of a police officer, but the case against him was later dropped when District Attorney Hillar Moore III said there was no evidence to support Hamadeh's account of the shooting. Howard always contended he never had a gun or fired at the officer.

The Baton Rouge Police internal affairs investigation found evidence that only one shot was fired in the encounter, and it came from Hamadeh's gun. No other gun was recovered from the scene. No one was injured in the shooting.

Paul fired Hamadeh in October for violating policies on carrying out orders, proper use of digital mobile video and audio equipment, conduct unbecoming to an officer and truthfulness.

The truthfulness related not to how Hamadeh reported the shooting but rather to his failure to report his car hitting Howard's during the initial traffic stop, a minor fender bender. He was not found in violation of the department's use of force policy.  

Hamadeh's attorney Tommy Dewey argued to the civil service board that when a Louisiana State Police trooper — at Paul's direction — gave the former city police officer a polygraph examination, Hamadeh was denied his right to legal counsel and that the interrogation was not recorded — two violations of the rights afforded to all law enforcement officers under investigation

The board on Thursday, however, based its decision solely on denial of Hamadeh's right to counsel. Despite Dewey showing up for the polygraph examination in late August and asking to accompany his client during the questioning, the state trooper administering the polygraph examination denied them that opportunity.

Paul's attorney, Ross Dooley said it was against polygraph policy for an attorney to be in the room because of the examination's "strict parameters." Polygraph experts say that having additional people in the room can skew the results.

"(This) is probably the reason that Mr. Dewey brought up at the beginning of his argument that polygraphs are rarely used in questioning police officers today, because, by definition by the type of exam it is, you’re going to violate his rights," Cherry said. 

Besides this case, the Baton Rouge Police Department had not used a polygraph examination in an internal affairs investigation since 2012, police officials have said. 

The police officer bill of rights states that law enforcement officers' counsel "shall be allowed to offer advice to the employee or officer and make statements on the record regarding any question asked of the employee or officer at any interrogation, interview, or hearing in the course of the investigation."

Circuit courts have ruled that polygraphs are considered an interrogation during officers' internal investigations. 

Cherry was clear that her vote to overturn the termination rested solely with the law, but said she did not expect this to end the case that had drawn continued community scrutiny.  

“This community deserves a lot of answers in every case that we have police officers that are alleged to do something that we don’t want to see them doing on the street," Cherry said.

She added that the board's decision "does not prevent the department from instituting another investigation and doing everything in accordance with the police officer’s bill of rights. There is no limitation on that.”

The board did not rule on whether Hamadeh's rights were violated by the interview not being recorded in full, because those facts remained disputed by the two sides.

Dewey said he requested, and received, all recordings from the internal investigation, which only included a two-question transcript from the polygraph — not a recording of the full exam.

Paul claimed that audio and video of the entire polygraph exam exists, although those were not provided at the hearing.

Paul, a former state trooper who previously lead their internal affairs division for years, said the agency often uses polygraphs for police officers and always records them. He said he did not regret ordering the polygraph examination of Hamadeh — the first one done in years for BRPD — but said Thursday's ruling will makes him reconsider their use in the future. 

"We’re going to move forward, look at the mistakes made in investigative processes and make the adjustments and move on," Paul said. 

But Raheem Howard's attorney, Ronald Haley Jr., said moving on is only more difficult now. 

“We’re absolutely disappointed," Haley said Thursday. "I had a chance to talk to Raheem  and his mother today and they’re absolutely devastated by the news that this opens the door for a person who is … responsible for what happened to Raheem to essentially do it to someone else.”

Haley questioned the reasons that had been given for Hamadeh's termination.  

"The reason he should have been fired was he shot at an unarmed man who was not a threat to him, and then lied about it," Haley said. "At the heart of what grabbed the attention of our city was not at the crux of his firing — that’s a problem.”

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.